Episode 47: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976, John Cassavetes) / Less Than Zero (1987, Marek Kanievska)



Los Angeles is a city of unpaid debts. There is nary a story on film set there which does not use someone’s lack of funds as the plot engine and the consequences tend to bring a character to climax. If they have their debt taken out in trade can be a fate worse than death. This happens in all walks of life: glamorous and sleazy and sleazy-glamorous. In LA the distinctions are blurred: there are beautiful women even in the gutters. Perhaps especially in the gutters.

This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast our LA-bound pair of films feature very good actors being very feckless patsies to their creditors. To be fair, Ben Gazzara is as successful in his task as the title of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie declares. Too bad for him that’s not the solution to his troubles and not a cure for the habits that got him in such a situation. The owner of seedy yet curiously chaste strip club, Gazzara gets his kicks with cards instead of girls – one stripper and her mother whom he both befriends serve more as an imitation family unit than sex fantasy. He values comfort above all else, and the best he can do for the patrons of his business is to make them feel comfortable and forget their troubles, yet in forgetting his own troubles with the comfortable old habit of gambling he’ll continue on stepping into trouble.

Unlike the two-time losers of Cassavetes films, the cycle of comfort addiction is taken for granted among the enclaves of wealthy youth. Bacchanalia and death the only real forms of rebellion the children of the rich have at their disposal against their parents, the former ironically made possible by necessity of rich and hard working (at least at one point) parents. Even amongst those youth not engaged in rebellion, the allure of upper class bohemia is perceived as a form of sophistication above the sphere of responsible squares in any economic strata. When money isn’t a concern, an arms race of sorts develops as to who has the most ostentatious appetites, and they mostly reside in the dangerously exciting place where comfort addiction puts you into debt.

Bret Easton Ellis’ best selling debut novel Less Than Zero was a fictionalized account of his fellow trust fund babies in Beverly Hills sinking into emotional vacuity and moral depravity. Since then he’s basically spent the rest of his career further detailing the sophisticated cruelty he observed growing up with other spoiled rich kids in books like The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. Those novels were adapted to film as well, but not excised of their lurid material nearly to the degree that Less Than Zero was sanitized. Ellis might have expected to see the loss of certain episodes as the viewing of a snuff film and the sexual slavery of an underage girl. The sillier refashioning of his source material and guarantor of bad moviedom was turning the main character from a bisexual and morally ambivalent naif into Andrew “Mannequin” McCarthy, non-threatening boy matinee idol and most certainly not to be a bisexual screen icon.

Without ambiguities of his own McCarthy is merely left to whine and mope about his drug-using friend’s downward spiral, which makes him an awfully boring protagonist. It’d be like if The Lost Weekend weren’t about Ray Milland, but a friend who keeps calling his apartment and wondering why he doesn’t pick up the phone.

McCarthy’s friend is Robert Downey Jr, handily the best actor in the film and whose performance begged to be at the center if the film was going to take so many liberties with the story anyways. Since the producers apparently envisioned the film as a cautionary anti-drug tale, perhaps they were concerned that making the addict the main character might have been construed as some kind of lionization. This would’ve been true to the degree that Downey Jr is a cooler actor than Andrew McCarthy, which is to say, a whole lot. James Spader turns in the other best performance of the film as Downey’s scummy dealer, and as you might expect, he doesn’t get the screen time he deserves either – instead McCarthy’s costar minute for minute is Jami Gertz, doing an atrocious job as his ex-girlfriend who once had a fling with Downey.

Still, Roger Ebert thought the anti-drug message was compelling enough to give the film a full four stars. Too bad for all involved (except Downey in the long run) this film killed their careers deader than Downey’s character Julian.


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